Gift Guide 2016 (No. 3): For the Aspiring Writer

December 8, 2016 § 3 Comments

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa SweetI am rarely at a loss for words. But, in thinking about how to recommend Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White (Ages 8 to adult), a 158-page tribute to one of children’s literature’s most enduring legacies, I find that I am. You see, I would like to reproduce nearly every one of White’s sublime quotations peppered throughout this biography—of which there are too many to count—yet doing so without Sweet’s exquisite accompanying collages would feel bereft. Plus, in the chapter dedicated to White’s rewrite of The Elements of Style, the tiny but quintessential guide to writing originally penned by his former Cornell professor, William Strunk, White makes clear his disdain for “needless words.”

So, in the spirit of White, and because Melissa Sweet’s biography of the writer stands alone in absolute perfection, I will attempt to keep my words (somewhat) brief. I encourage you to experience this marvel for yourself—that is, before you gift it to an aspiring child writer, or to anyone with a fondness for boating, impeccable grammar, farm animals, New England, and manual typewriters.

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

Before this biography landed in our hands, my family was already engaged in a love affair with E.B. White. Or, should I say, with his voice. Last summer, on a road trip from Virginia to Maine, we listened to E.B. White’s recording of The Trumpet of the Swan, his third and final novel for children, about a boy named Sam Beaver and a trumpeter swan named Louis, “who has a speech defect—along with other problems, including a money problem” (this was White’s description, upon submitting the manuscript to his editor, Ursula Nordstrom). Then, this fall, we listened to White read Charlotte’s Web, by many accounts his “magnum opus,” a story of the redemptive friendship between Wilbur the pig and the grey barn spider Charlotte (Nordstrom suggested he change only one word before publishing it). Both The Trumpet of the Swan and Charlotte’s Web were already familiar to us—my kids had heard them in school and at home. And yet, listening to White read them in the car, it was as if we had on fresh ears.

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

White’s voice, like the man behind it, is unassuming yet commanding. Gravelly yet gentle, even but never boring, his voice is like that of an old family friend, who sits back in his chair after dinner to weave a story—and to whom you find yourself drawing closer and closer. White doesn’t employ fancy inflections for the characters: in the spirit of his New England accent, he speaks as a matter of fact. We are left with the nakedness of his words—and perhaps just a hint of underlying amusement about the events they relate—and these words themselves awaken in us awe, startle us to laughter, and move us to tears. (My son was consoled to learn he was not alone in his tears: in recording Charlotte’s Web, it took White seventeen takes to get through the chapter in which Charlotte dies.)

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

In listening to White read his stories, we marveled at the new details we noticed, like the juxtaposition between the dramatic pontifications of Louis’ cob father and the economical practicality of his mother; or the diverse cataloging of Wilbur’s slop meals. Then, in reading Some Writer! (its title an allusion to Charlotte’s praise of Wilbur in her web), we developed a greater appreciation for these observations. It turns out that Louis’ father was modeled after White’s own father (“Father…didn’t hesitate to say in twenty words what could be said in six.”). Similarly, the detailed descriptions of Wilbur’s life stemmed, not only from White’s intimate familiarity with farm chores, but from heartbreak after his own pig died from disease. When White was giving input into the movie adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, he cautioned the director that “the film should be a paean to life, a hymn to the barn, an acceptance of dung.”

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

While certainly my children’s favorite part, the attention to Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Stuart Little (White’s first children’s book), comprises only three of thirteen chapters in Sweet’s book. Taken as a whole, the book reads like a traditional biography, beginning with White’s birth in 1899 outside New York City (born Elwyn Brooks White, he went by Andy all his life, and Sweet invokes his first name throughout the book in a fitting nod to his modesty) and ending eighty-six years later on White’s beloved farm in Maine.

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

My son—on the heels of his own summer vacation in Maine—took a keen interest in White’s first encounter with Maine, during his childhood summers spent at Belgrade Lakes, initially undertaken on a doctor’s order for White’s hay fever. It was on these chilly shores that White, in the spirit of Sam Beaver, began the observations of the natural world that would later infuse his children’s stories.

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

With his wife (fellow writer Katharine Sergeant Angell, for whom White composed love poems) and his young son, White settled in Maine, raising animals for food. Writing may have come easily to White, but money never did, especially in the years his beloved wife was ill. Most of what Write wrote—he was a freelance writer for The New Yorker and Harper’s, as well as a prolific letter writer—was not for children, and came out of both his need to make a living and a commitment to presenting life in its grit and glory. White’s innate ruggedness and scrappiness, which we first glimpse in his post-collegiate road trip across the country, comes through beautifully in Sweet’s pages: he never opted for the easy path, but he always acted true to his passions.

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White was insistent that, upon death, his farm be sold: he did not want it turned into a museum. Sweet explains that White shunned the notion of author as celebrity, believing that an author’s duty was “to transmit, as best as he can, his love of life, his appreciation for the world.” He wrote of his own work: “All that I can say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world. I guess you can find that in there, if you dig around.” Anyone who has read White’s books knows you don’t have to dig at all before you’re marveling at the craftsmanship of a spider’s egg sac, or the stillness of a pond underneath a blanket of ice. It seems to me that, for White, his most meaningful legacy would be for our children to share in this love.

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

Every Tuesday, my son joins his class on a trail hike through the forest preserve that begins steps from his classroom. This week, the hike took place in the pouring rain. When JP got into the car at pick up, he was bursting with excitement, gesturing wildly from the backseat as he described the scene: “Mom, you would not believe the creek today: it was like rapids! If you tried to walk across it, you would be swept away! We had to hold onto the tree branches because the wind was whipping against our faces, and one kid slipped in the mud on the way back up so we had to stage a Rescue Mission, and the whole time the water was making this crashing sound, and it was seriously the Best. Day. Ever.” If White had been next to me in the car, I believe he would have been smiling.

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

While on the subject of weather, I have to close with one final citation from Sweet’s book, because White’s words seem almost prophetic, given the political, social, and environmental landscape in which we find ourselves, on the heels of this past election. At the same time, his words remind us of the cyclical nature of life, something central to the themes of his children’s classics. This excerpt is from a letter White wrote in 1973:

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time, waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Ever the optimist: in his essays and letters and poems and novels, White reminds us that one only has to take a canoe out on a lake at sunrise to experience the good that exists around us.

And this book reminds us that words can sometimes be the greatest gift of all.

"Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White" by Melissa Sweet

(Well…that wasn’t exactly brief. But you didn’t really think I could pull that off, right?)

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Review copy courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

The Book That Saved December

December 31, 2014 § 6 Comments

"Winterfrost" by Michelle HoutsReading to our children can sometimes be the best way to slow down and live in the moment; to see the world through the wonder of young eyes and to have our own faith restored. Never has this been truer for me than in the past month. This December, reading threw me a lifeline. And boy, did I need it.

What is normally a time of sweet anticipation (cutting down our Christmas tree! driving the kids around to look at decorations! shopping for the perfect wrapping paper!), felt this year like an insurmountable list of to dos. The word drudgery came to mind on more than a few occasions. With my husband traveling for much of the month, I was exhausted. With every step, it felt like my legs were at risk of crumpling, of reducing me to a cast-aside pile of expired Christmas lights. The rain didn’t help (because who enjoys tromping around a Christmas tree farm in the pouring rain?). No matter how many times I scaled back my expectations (the teachers will get store-bought gifts this year!), I never felt the burden lighten.

I don’t have to tell you what our stress level does to our ability to parent with patience. As my daughter erupted into yet another round of crocodile-tear hysterics (over, at one point, a hypothetical snowball fight with her brother), I began to have fantasies of walking into the neighbor’s mass of giant inflatable Santas and Frostys and never coming out.

And then, one afternoon, I was talking to a friend. She was lamenting her frustration at not knowing what to do with her son while his little sister took a 45-minute dance class. Lately, the son had been unleashing a litany of complaints about having to be dragged along. The mom enlightened me: he has already had a snack, his homework is done, he’s exhausted, and all the toys in the waiting area of the studio are for younger kids.

“What if you brought along a book for you to read to him?” I offered. “You could pick a chapter book—or an anthology of stories—and that could become the special thing you share with him each week while his sister is in class.” I then added, only half-jokingly, “It’s my personal parenting mantra that few problems cannot be solved with a great children’s book.”

And then it hit me. I could solve my December problems with a great children’s book. We had only gotten through half the Christmas books brought down from our attic, normally one of our favorite traditions. Even still, I could feel my seven year old beginning to age out of these holiday picture books. Or maybe I was projecting my own boredom. I needed something fresh. Something juicy. Something that would lift the kids and me out of our holiday funk.

And then I came across a list of Christmas-themed chapter books, from the blog “What Do We Do all Day?” I went straight to the library and came home with the newly-published Winterfrost, by Michelle Houts (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud).

This book is pure deliciousness.

Let me start by saying that Winterfrost is much more of a winter story than a Christmas one (so, no, you haven’t missed the window in which to read it). It just happens to open on Christmas Eve—and actually, given the surprising turn of events, no Christmas celebration follows. Which means that if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you and your children won’t feel at all out of place here. It’s a timeless story—one I could easily imagine taking out year after year—and its innocent, transcendent handling makes it appropriate for a wide variety of ages.

The story takes place on a remote farm in Denmark, where twelve-year-old Bettina has been left to care for her almost one-year-old sister, while their parents are called away for a few days on an emergency. Practical, level-headed Bettina feels more than confident in her ability to balance the farm chores with keeping her sister’s nap schedule intact. And then, one morning, Bettina awakens to find the world shimmering and twinkling and quiet under the spell of a rare winterfrost. Soon after, her not-yet-walking baby sister disappears.

Bettina’s grandfather used to tell her that “the most mysterious events occur during winterfrost.” He also encouraged her to believe in what her eyes can’t always see—specifically, in the tiny gnome-like characters known in Danish legends as nisse. These benevolent, mischief-loving creatures secretly watch over a human family all year long, requiring only that a bowl of rice pudding be left out for them on Christmas Eve. (Do I need to tell you that, in the unusual circumstances of this particular Christmas, the bowl of pudding is overlooked by Bettina and her family? Not good. Not good at all.)

As Bettina embarks on a quest through the strange and enchanting nisse world, in order to negotiate the safe return of her sister before her parents discover what has happened, the story offers something for everyone. Have a daughter who is fairy-obsessed? She’ll love the miniature, three-hundred-year-old gnomes, with their tall red hats and their elaborate tree houses with acorn-sized furniture. Have a son who is hankering for suspense? Nearly every one of the 36 short chapters will leave him on the edge of his seat (or, in my son’s case, with the covers over his head, exclaiming, “Keep going! Don’t stop! It’s so intense!”). In a winterfrost, nothing is as it seems, and Bettina must unravel the complicated relationship between the nisse world and the human world.

Throughout Winterfrost, perspectives shift, determination is fierce, new friendships are forged, sibling love prevails—and all of this is cloaked in the wonderment of the natural world. Houts’ lyrical prose soars; it gives chills; it makes you want to snuggle your children close. Like any great book, it holds you tightly in the moment.

This book was such a hit with both of my children that, on several December evenings, I moved up dinner to give us an extra hour of reading time before bed. I got no complaints. The kids and I could not have been more excited to throw on our PJs, brush our teeth, and curl up to immerse ourselves in a magical wintery world. These were the best hours of my December. They grounded me; they returned me to myself; they made me temporarily forget the to dos and then remember why the to dos existed in the first place. Because the world is magical for those who believe. And for those who take the time to pay attention.

“It is the seer, after all, who must slow down enough to take note of the world around her.”

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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 3): For the Rebel Princess (Ages 5-8)

December 4, 2014 § 1 Comment

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen PhamFive years ago, when I learned I was having a girl, I self-righteously vowed that I would bar the door from tiaras and princess costumes and those scary high-heeled plastic dress-up shoes with the sequins on the toes. My daughter won’t equate beauty with Disney-fied princesses! My daughter will read books about trains and science and daring adventures! My daughter won’t be held back by stereotypes of femininity!

Of course, ultimatums rarely work out in parenting—nor are they usually for the best. Those of you with girls already know that The Princess Obsession eventually finds its way into the house—slipping through the gap beneath the front door, if need be. Before my kids watched Frozen, my daughter already knew the words to every song, just from listening to her classmates. Before my son pointed to a hot pink skirt with 20 layers of tulle at Target and said (in the sweetest voice, so how could I resist?), “Oh, Mommy, Emily would just love something like that”—before that, Emily was already coming home from play dates in borrowed glitter-encrusted frocks.

What I failed to anticipate as a new parent, is that there are complex dichotomies at work in the princess fantasies of my daughter and her friends. When playing, Emily is just as likely to wear her tulle skirt on her head than around her waist. She likes to pair her purple metallic slippers with a red superhero cape and an astronaut helmet.

“I’ve decided to ask Santa for a real Queen Elsa dress,” she announced the other night. “Oh yeah?” I said (trying not to wince too obviously). “And what will you do with an Elsa dress?”

“I will sing and dance around. Also, I will fight bad guys.”

Ok then.

For a long time, rebel princesses have popped up in children’s picture books (Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess is the most well known, although there are fun new additions, like Dangerously Ever After). Additionally, the teen market is ripe with re-imagined fairytale heroines (Robin McKinley’s Beauty tops my list). Now, at long last, it would appear that these princess rebels are making their way into early-reader literature, a category which as a whole is getting a much-needed makeover in quality and sophistication (you haven’t forgotten Dory Fantasmagory, have you?).

Authors Shannon Hale and Dean Hale’s The Princess in Black (Ages 5-8), a short chapter book for newly independent readers (and an equally terrific read-aloud), will be hard for any child (or parent) to resist. It’s everything a princess-and-superhero-loving girl could want: tulle and cape; dainty tea parties and wild romps in the forest; royalty and monsters. And the best part? Every single one of the 90 pages features a full-color illustration (this never happens in chapter books!) by the energetic LeUyen Pham. Oh, and did I mention that the book’s cover sports metallic ink?

When we first meet Princess Magnolia, she is decked out in a pink gown and glass slippers, perfectly upholding civility, while hosting the nosy, big-haired Duchess Wigtower over hot chocolate and scones.

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

But, we quickly learn, Princess Magnolia has a secret identity. For starters, she has a Monster Alarm embedded in the gemstone of her ring, designed to go off when monster mayhem is afloat. As we watch, Princess Magnolia politely excuses herself from the unsuspecting duchess, ducks into a broom closet, and trades her frilly pink ensemble for a black suit, black tights, and black cape (the tiara stays). Here comes my daughter’s favorite part: the Princess in Black then slides out of the castle through a secret chute and high jumps over the castle wall.

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

Once atop her unicorn-turned-masked-black stallion, PIB gallops off to fight crime (or “bad guys,” as my Emily would say).

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

When asking nicely doesn’t do the trick, the Princess in Black unleashes the perfect combination of “sparkle slams,” “princess pounces,” and “twinkle twinkle little smashes” to stop a hungry blue monster from devouring a trio of goats. We’re talking princess-style ninjitsu!

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

The Princess in Black blends action, grace, and humor. And the best news? There are hints about possible sequels! Duff the Goat Boy, thus far an innocent bystander, is the only one to suspect an uncanny likeness between the Princess in Black and Princess Magnolia. Do we hear rumblings of a future sidekick for the PIB?

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

I still worry about the too-skinny, high-heel-wearing princesses (rebels or not) that grace contemporary movie screens and literature. But I also enjoy watching how comfortably my daughter seems to reside in the space between dichotomies of “female” and “male,” “princess” and “rebel.” This generation of girls will forge their own path in the world—and we had better get out of their way.

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All opinions are my own. Review copy provided by Candlewick publishing. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

September’s Birthday Pick (Welcoming Fall with Some Peace and Quiet)

September 13, 2014 § 6 Comments

"Otis and the Scarecrow" by Loren LongI may be only seven years into this parenting gig, but one thing about which I’m certain is that I will never adjust to the noise. I’m talking about the incessant chatter; the shrieks of siblings chasing each other around the house; the whining about being hungry 15 minutes after a meal. At no time was this more evident than this past summer, when I was around my kids nearly every waking hour. Don’t get me wrong: I loved our lazy mornings, reading books in our PJs until 11am; I loved feeling a little hand in each of mine as the three of us rounded dirt paths; I loved huddling tight against my son in the last car of a roller coaster whipping around curves. Yes, we had wonderful hours together—hours when the questions and the observations and even the screaming seemed perfectly lovely. But, at some point, there would be this:

Picture me in the car, driving us home from a packed morning of puppet show, playground, and picnic. The kids are rosy-cheeked, ice-cream-stained, and happy. It’s one of those moments where you think, yup, I’m totally rocking this summer thing. Best. Mom. Ever. And you’re looking forward to a nice relaxing drive, listening to the radio and watching the trees fly by.

JP (from the backseat, as we merge onto the highway): “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me (flushed with pride at my sweet, smart son): “That’s right, honey!”

JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me: “Yes, I heard you. And you are absolutely right!”

JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me: “Mmmmmhmmmmm.”

JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me (suddenly seized by the notion that I am trapped in a moving metal box that is simultaneously pressing against the sides of my skull and sucking the oxygen out of my lungs): “What do you want from me? Why on God’s green earth are you saying the same thing over and over? What can I say to make you STOP TALKING FOR JUST ONE SINGLE SECOND OF THIS CAR RIDE SO I CAN HEAR MYSELF THINK??!!”

It’s little wonder that, weeks later when my kids would at last return to school, I would bask in the deliciousness of silence. I know many of you know just what I mean. Of course, then I come to find out, courtesy of Loren Long’s new installment in his beloved picture book series about a tractor named Otis, that I might have had some moments of silence all along. If only I had thought to make a game of it. In Otis and the Scarecrow (Ages 3-7), Otis challenges his animal friends to a game of who can stay quiet the longest. (Seriously, why did I never think of this?) My kids find the antics involved in the animals trying to outlast each other to be absolutely hilarious: the bull eventually twitches his nose, setting off a chain effect of wiggling duck bottoms and erupting equine giggles, until those few minutes of peace and quiet are once again a thing of the past.

"Otis and the Scarecrow" by Loren Long

There’s something fitting, I suppose, about this game hitting its stride, not in summer, but in fall. Long’s evocative pencil and gouache illustrations, bursting with warm oranges and browns, call to mind everything I love about fall, from the pumpkin patches to the crunch of the leaves. It’s a season that naturally demands a bit of quiet, as we watch, smell, or listen to the transformations around us. It’s also a season ripe with new acquaintances and the possibility for new friends. In Otis’ case, the newcomer on the farm is a mysteriously silent scarecrow. Otis and the animals initially take the scarecrow’s silence for disdain and snub him in return (there’s a subtle lesson here about the haste with which we dismiss what we don’t understand). But Otis finds himself increasingly drawn back to the scarecrow, admiring his stoicism in the face of hard rain and pecking crows. As Otis is eventually brave enough to discover, a scarecrow can also kick some serious butt in The Quiet Game.

Fall, with its increasingly dark nights, its jack-o-lanterns, and its natural surprises, seems laced with a kind of magic. I love a book that asks us—parents and children alike—to slow down, to hush up, and to open up ourselves to the very magic unfolding around us. “[A]s Otis watched, he couldn’t be sure, but he thought he might have seen the scarecrow smile.” It’s amazing what a few moments of quiet can do.

Our Other Favorite Otis Books, written and illustrated by Loren Long:
Otis (Ages 3-6)
Otis and the Tornado (Ages 4-7; reviewed here)
Otis and the Puppy (Ages 3-6; reviewed here)
An Otis Christmas (Ages 4-7; reviewed here)

What Was Santa Like as a Kid? (& My Favorite Christmas Books of 2013)

December 4, 2013 § 4 Comments

"An Otis Christmas" by Loren LongWith every holiday season, there is a kind of magic in rediscovering old friends, old traditions, old stories. I have only to see the ecstasy on my children’s faces as we unpack our box of Christmas books each December to remember why I go through the trouble of packing them away in January, as opposed to stuffing them into our already stuffed bookshelves. As a parent, it’s magical for me as well: last night my eldest left us at the dinner table, voluntarily bathed himself, got into his PJs, brushed his teeth, and called downstairs, “I’m ready 20 minutes early so I can get some extra Christmas stories!” No wonder they call it the most wonderful time of the year.

Just because we only read them for one month a year doesn’t mean I can resist the temptation to add to our collection every single year (there are worse addictions, I’ve assured my husband). Last year was Alison Jay’s exquisite Christmastime, where clues of Christmas carols are embedded into a seek-and-find masterpiece. Previous years’ favorites are mentioned here and here. This year’s acquisitions include two new picture books, utterly different in style, but forever entwined in my mind, since my kids and I had the pleasure of meeting both author/illustrators at Hooray for Books (our fabulous independent bookstore) a few weeks ago.

I have twice now (here and here) sung the praises of Loren Long’s books about Otis, the kind tractor who bravely saves the day time and time again on his farm. An Otis Christmas (Ages 3-7) is every bit as endearing as its predecessors, although it has unique bragging rights to a shiny red horn, a newborn foal, and just the subtlest visual parallel to the manger of the First Christmas.

Little SantaThen there’s Jon Agee’s Little Santa (Ages 3-7), which in contrast to the sweeping drama of Otis, paints a quirky story of Santa’s early days as a red onesie-sporting toddler—and the sequence of events involving a sleigh, a flying reindeer, and an elf partnership, which led to him becoming the Santa Claus we know today. In Agee’s characteristically droll humor, we are introduced to Santa’s parents and siblings (who are bent on trading in their life on the North Pole for the sunny beaches of Florida), as well as Santa’s early penchant for sliding down chimneys (where other children might, say, slide down a slide). In a word, awesome.

I’ll admit that, as many times as I’ve attended author events in my professional life, I have never thought to drag my kids along (because “dragging” is exactly what I thought it would feel like to take them down to a bookstore at suppertime on a school night while my husband was out of town). Well, I am here to tell you that you must start doing this, especially with your elementary children. Many of these author/illustrators don’t simply read their books aloud to the audience: they actually draw them right before kids’ eyes. My six year old knows that an author is someone who writes the words to a story, that an illustrator draws the pictures, and that some people do both; but to most kids (and I’m sure to many adults), the entire book-making process feels largely intimidating, inaccessible. These glossy, perfectly colorized illustrations, handsomely bound between hard covers with evenly spaced text around them, feel like something reserved for “real artists” (“I’ll never be a real artist!” I used to cry to my parents every time I couldn’t make my drawings look “perfect”).

So here we are at this event with Loren Long and Jon Agee, and my tentative, watchful JP, initially taking a seat in the last row, begins slowly, over the course of the evening, to make his way further and further towards the front, until he is sitting dead smack in front of the easel, on which Jon Agee is seemingly effortlessly and haphazardly sketching with a Sharpie the scenes and characters of his story as he voices aloud the narrative. When Agee doesn’t like something, he simply crosses it out. Or he draws on top of it. Sometimes all he draws is a single line (to indicate how high the snow was); sometimes he draws five or six scenes on the same page. No fuss, no special tools. Just sheet after sheet of flimsy newsprint and a blue (sometimes red) marker. Emily was amused simply to hear the stories. But for JP, watching these author/illustrators create before his eyes was positively Mind Blowing. And don’t think he didn’t come home and go straight for his markers.

Jon Agee madly sketching from "Little Santa" (wow, was he fast) with Loren Long making sound effects in the background. Such fun!

Jon Agee madly sketching from “Little Santa” (wow, was he fast) with Loren Long making sound effects in the background. Such fun!

Jon Agee gave us an additional gift that day. You see, as excited as I was for the publication of Little Santa, I also knew that, as a parent who gets easily tripped up in discussing the topic of Santa Claus, I would have to confront the inevitable question: “How does that guy know that this is what really happened when Santa was a kid?” Sure enough, a child asked this very question, and Agee’s reply was absolutely perfect: “I actually don’t know for sure. Before I wrote the book, I did a lot of research. I went out and talked to lots of people, many of them kids, and I asked each of them what Santa might have been like as a kid. And a lot of people said some pretty similar things, like that he must have always lived in the North Pole and liked to slide down chimneys. But, at the end of the day, this is just one story. One version of what might have happened. My version.” Christmas, after all, is as much a time for storytelling as it is a time for believing. At the end of the day, the stories we tell make the real magic.


Another 2013 Christmas Favorite
(and one I would buy if I didn’t already own a billion versions of this poem—one has to draw the line somewhere):
The Night Before Christmas, by Clement C. Moore, illus. Holly Hobbie

April’s Birthday Pick

April 14, 2013 § 1 Comment

Otis and the PuppySpring is a time of rebirth: a time of budding trees, sprouting seeds, and birthday parties. As for the last, you’re in luck, because there is a brand new Otis story on the shelves! Whether or not you’re familiar with Loren Long’s stunningly illustrated and action-packed picture books about Otis (see previous posts here), a happy-go-lucky tractor who always comes through for his friends, the new Otis and the Puppy (Ages 3-6) is a slam-dunk. Get your local bookstore to wrap up a copy for every one of your spring birthday parties; and don’t worry about whether the recipient has read the original Otis or Otis and the Tornado because, like its predecessors, Otis and the Puppy stands alone. This new book has it all: heart, empathy, heroism, and a doe-eyed, playful-eared puppy. When the puppy arrives on the farm, he develops an immediate fondness for the tractor; he eagerly joins in Otis’ games of Hide and Seek and sleeps each night against the purring tractor. Otis quickly learns that the puppy and him have something in common: they’re both afraid of the dark. So when the puppy strays too far from the farm one afternoon and is not recovered by bedtime, Otis’ “heart ached deep inside his engine. He knew how scared of the dark his new friend was and…he knew his friend needed him.” But can Otis muster up the courage to leave the safety of the barn to search for his friend in the dark?

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately—about how often we call on our children to be brave (the daily list is long: walking up the steps into school; removing training wheels; staying in bed during a thunderstorm). If there’s something children can relate to, it’s the fear behind being brave (didn’t someone once define courage as the act of being afraid and doing it anyway?). The first time I read Otis and the Puppy aloud to my children, their awe was palpable: “Otis is so brave, Mommy,” whispered my son, as a quivering Otis enters the pitched black forest with only his headlights to guide him. “Mind over matter,” my mother used to preach to us when we were afraid; and Otis indeed uses his imagination to calm his nerves, counting “one-putt, two-puff, three puttedy,” as if in the middle of an ordinary game of Hide and Seek. On a recent spring break trip to Florida, my son came up against his very great fear of swimming. For a week, my husband and I tried to coax him into the water above his waist. “My body is saying no, my body is afraid!” he shrieked. “Do you remember what Otis did when he was afraid in the forest?” I offered. “I don’t want to talk about Otis!” he shot back (I could almost hear him as an adult telling his shrink, “My Mom was always trying to compare my life to picture books.” Oops.) Yet, a few days later, when my husband was at last holding his hands and guiding him on his belly through the water, he looked at me, grinned, and exclaimed, “Mommy, I’m counting in my head, and it’s helping!” We’re still a long way off from putting our head in the water, but with literary heroes to inspire us, I know we’ll get there one day.

My children's favorite moment in the book, when Otis finds the puppy (by his tail poking out of a hollow log), and the latter "squealed and cried and covered Otis's face with kisses."

My children’s favorite moment in the book, when Otis finds the puppy (by his tail poking out of a hollow log), and the latter “squealed and cried and covered Otis’s face with kisses.”

January’s Birthday Pick

January 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

I Took the Moon for a WalkFor this month’s birthday pick, I’m doing something a little different: 1) I’m focusing on the youngest ages for a change 2) I’ve chosen not one but two books (which make a perfect pairing) and 3) I’m encouraging you to throw caution to the wind and take a chance on books that aren’t brand new but are commonly unknown. In short, the next time you are headed to a birthday party for a one or two year old, you’re in luck. I Took the Moon for a Walk (Ages 1-4) and Listen, Listen (Ages 1-4) are both illustrated by the supremely talented Alison Jay, whose praises I have sung here before. With their over-sized 9” by 9” format, these hefty board books mirror another favorite by Jay, her ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book (which tends to be well known and for good reason: it may just be the best alphabet book ever illustrated). Alison Jay’s books are the ultimate gift. Packed with hidden surprises, layered with detail, and shimmering in vivid colors underneath a “crackle” finish, Jay’s paintings beg to be poured over again and again. When he was a toddler, my son JP absolutely adored I Took the Moon for a Walk, which is inspired by the illusion of the moon moving with us as we walk. Alongside Jay’s illustrations, Carolyn Curtis’ lyrics chart a little boy out for a pre-bedtime stroll: “I took the Moon for a walk last night. It followed behind me like a still summer kite.” The child-centric premise (why shouldn’t the moon be following my every move?) has always been immensely alluring to my son, who like many children is fascinated by the moon. Although he hasn’t read the book in a probably a year, just the other day when we were out walking at dusk, JP spotted a nearly full moon and immediately broke into a jog, craning his neck toward the silver disc in the sky and yelling back at me, “Look, Mommy, it’s like we’re taking the moon for a walk!” (at five it seems his world view has now broadened to include his family). My two year old daughter, on the other hand, is currently entranced by Listen, Listen, an onomatopoetic ode to the seasons, written by Phillis Gershator, and which seems especially fitting to be reading at the beginning of a new year (although, in few disclosure, it actually begins with summer’s “chirp, chirp, churr, churr, buzz, buzz, whirr, whirr”). While the book’s text is all about the sounds of the seasons, the illustrations are all about looking; even after dozens of readings, Emily and I continue to find something new on every page. Alison Jay is like a magician who seems to conjure up new details in her paintings from some nearby invisible location (how could I have missed the little black witch trick-or-treating in the distance? Ha, I never noticed that the ladybug has her legs over her ears because the tulips are shouting so loudly!). Naturally, being obsessed with all things baby, Emily’s favorite pages are those devoted to springtime, in particular to the baby chicks hatching from eggs and falling on their bottoms beside their mother. Even JP has joined us for a few of our more recent readings (naturally, being obsessed with all things competitive, he likes to challenge Emily to see who can find the icicle or the dragonfly faster in the bonus seek-and-find pages at the end). But I digress. The important thing is that with these two treasures, you will be armed with gifts that keep on giving with every season, with every night.

Listen, Listen

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